Most bodies exist in italics.
It’s full-bodied when we’re talking about a really good beer. You present your body of work and pray that the audience likes it. Or there’s the body tag, the backbone of code that supports all your favorite websites. But there’s a delicate balance between other bodies and your body. It’s constantly under construction. Your body’s got layers like a quarry, like a cake made from metamorphic rock. Metamorphic, meaning “change in form.” Just like the rocky crust of the earth, your flesh is transformative.
Care for your body like you would an elderly relative. Give it nourishing dietary supplements. Rub it with cocoa butter before bed, stuff that makes your partner not want to touch your sticky skin under the covers. Or treat your body like you’re a horrible babysitter, one who just wants to talk on the phone all night and doesn’t give a shit about the kids. Give your body Snickers bars and only feed it black coffee and the little powdered doughnuts they sell at convenience stores. Wonder why you can’t stop shivering even though the temperature in the office is always set at a damp eighty-two degrees.
Remember the first time you knew your body did things without your permission.
When you were young you ate paper, the scraps left over from spiral notebooks, the kind that left little shreds on the classroom floor. Sometimes you chewed on the glossy, colored pages of your math textbook. There were equations in the corner next to a picture of a boy and girl holding hands, children whose skin color Crayola would call “apricot.” They wondered how many gallons of gas they needed to fill up their red sports car, even though neither of them looked old enough to drive. When you chewed the colored paper, some of the ink stained the top edges of your teeth blue, which showed everyone that you weren’t brushing very well. You thought the chemicals in the dye would coat your stomach and maybe give you cancer, like the girl in fifth grade who’d had chemo and wore a spangled bandana on her head. You ate another piece of the colored paper, and then another. You waited for a tumorous lump like a pregnancy, but instead you got your first period.
Puberty means your body is jittery.
You can’t sit still, legs crossing and uncrossing, fingers picking at the acne on your cheeks and chin while you secretly read your mother’s romance novels. Once you were on the phone with a boy you didn’t really like, but he liked you enough to write embarrassing love notes that you hid under your mattress. You were watching television while he talked at you. The show was a rerun and you mouthed all of the funny dialogue. Male characters always got the best lines, the ones that made the TV audience laugh. When the boy asked you a question, you realized you were more invested in the show than in a boy who never laughed at your jokes and always misspelled the word “Wednesday.” You told him you had to get off the phone and eat dinner. Your mother heard you and was embarrassed.
“Don’t you want him to like you?”
She was talking about your words but she was looking at your clothes; you liked men’s cargo pants and your head turtled out of the necks of big, cotton t-shirts.
“No,” you said. “Not really.”
There is a special way to hold your body so that when you walk you sway side to side, like you’ve got the gait of a carriage horse. You owned a book in middle school called Elbows off the Table: Manners for Teen Christians, and you read it over and over again until the pulpy bits broke off in your fingers. You didn’t eat this paper because it was brittle and yellow and you were too old for that by then. The book had a chapter called “Seasoned with Salt” that talked about how the physical body above looks like everyone elses–hair, skin, fingernails–but it’s the spiritual body below that makes you more important than other people. It didn’t say that specifically, but it did say that a Christian’s heart beats below their ribs in a fiery-red rightness that sets them apart, that made them precious in God’s eyes.
Alone in your room, you stare at your naked body. Your skin is your skin, but you didn’t make it yourself. Specific ingredients were combined to brew your anatomy, the meaty stew that simmered nine months in the crock-pot of your mother’s stomach.
You grow and you add your own seasoning.
One day, when you left school in the fourth grade, you accidentally kissed your teacher goodbye on the mouth. This was a middle-aged woman who lived with another lady teacher, a woman who dyed her hair coppery-orange like pennies and had a rainbow sticker on the back of her car. She wore chewed-up red lipstick, and you wondered for years if that one kiss was the thing that had turned you gay. That maybe you‘d accidentally seasoned yourself dyke instead of straight.
As you age, other people add their tastes to yours. They’re absorbed through your skin, inside your mouth, on the tongue. Sometimes they taste good, but mostly it’s all bitterness, like drinking a glass of orange juice after brushing your teeth. Your first kiss was after swimming in a pool with too much chlorine that burned your eyes bloodshot. That person had slippery lips and they tasted like bleach.
Some seasoning is forced on the body.
When you took communion at church you sat with everyone and listened to the pastor say the special words about the grape juice and the little crackers. He told you to eat and drink in remembrance, that it was symbolic of the Lord’s body which was broken for you. One deacon always wore white patent-leather shoes and a wide, white tie. He dyed his hair matte black, the kind of black that made it look like a Halloween wig. But when he closed his eyes and prayed everything sounded sincere. His sentences all started with the words thank you. Thank you for the body of the church, thank you for the body of the congregation, thank you for this broken body that we’re about to eat. The body, the body, the body. You held the wafer in your mouth, and it broke apart until it was nothing, until it dissolved so your sins could be absolved.
In small moments you celebrate the body: how it looks creamy-smooth in certain low light, how the skin of your stomach stretches to accommodate all the bread you love to eat, how you can look at your grandmother and see your future self staring back at you—the same thinning hair, the same hands cradling her coffee mug, tenderly, like she’s holding a baby bird. The genealogical records of your family are housed in stories they retell on weekends and at birthday parties and on Christmas Eve when you eat the chili that your grandfather used to make before he died. Your family crowds together in the same space, and in those moments your body becomes part of a bigger thing, a body that contains meaning outside of itself. The large Southern body who are your people.
Do you want to detach from your body, shed your skin like a cicada—thick and crunchy, sloughed off like a dirty coat?
In sickness and in health, the marriage of your body to yourself, forever. The body does not believe in divorce. Put your soft body inside metal bodies like cars and trains and airplanes, take your body to the beach and burn it brown with oil. Bleach your teeth. Dye your hair. Ornament the flesh with ink pulled from the roots of plants. Drown it in boxed red wine you’ll throw up in your friend’s bathtub. Look at pictures of yourself as a child and reminisce about eating paper, how your body absorbed it all without flinching. Remember swallowing gum. Swallowing communion wafers. Wonder if the remnants of Christ’s body still line your stomach as protective coating against future fuck ups—holy antacids against the acid reflux of sin.
Did you know you’ll have full-bodied hair if you take prenatal vitamins?
Having another body lodged inside your own means that you’re essentially a vessel. It’s the belly of a ship that carries precious cargo, which is just another way of saying a baby, a baby’s body, soft as bread dough. The fontanel is where the baby’s skull is not yet closed. It’s a place where the brain pokes through bone and presses flush against the flesh, trying to escape. As we age, our bodies knit this gap. Our skulls cap the brains to trap us inside.
On a Facebook thread about pregnancy, someone left a comment that said: “But we are in charge of our bodies and who we allow to touch them.” You think of the strangers who loved to touch your belly without asking, wanted to feel the child inside. How they rubbed briskly at your skin like it was the coat of a friendly animal. At the same time, there were interior fingers stretching up, through the thin skin of the womb, the ones that are genetically fifty percent yours. Feet kicked below your ribs and woke you up at night. When that baby was born, its hands grabbed for you and clung. You are expected to always be open and available. As a grown person, men call you “Baby” and “Sugar,” dumpling names for little kids that are usually attached to your frame. Last month, the auto mechanic hooked his finger in the crease of your elbow as he called you “Sweetheart” and spoke to you about your car’s bad transmission.
There is no privacy of the body.
When you were ten you saw the commercial on television that showed an age progression between a boy and a girl, side-by-side, both drinking milk. The girl talked about how the boy doesn’t notice her now, but he will once she’s older because she is drinking milk. In the future, the grown and perfect version of the girl will turn out like an Instagram photo with all the right filters. Watching that commercial made you think your body would go through that development process, but when you were sixteen you kept waiting, and when you were twenty you kept waiting, and when you were twenty-five you kept waiting, and now you just want to look ten years old again. Or maybe just feel like it, your skin so tight around your body that it grips your flesh and bones like a clenched fist.